Here’s the easy-to-remember version: I don’t much care for “The Fantasticks.”
Before I watched the Actors’ Repertory Theatre stage production at the Severance Theatre, the only version I’d seen of the world’s longest running musical — it opened in New York only slightly after the dinosaurs died, finally closing in 2002 before reopening in yet another run that continues to this day — was a slick 1995 film version starring Joel Grey on DVD. I’d been decidedly ho-hum about that experience, and I can say the same thing after watching the admittedly competent and assured production that the ART folks have put together.
To me, “The Fantasticks” (playing through April 19) is a show that has one amazing blockbuster song (“Try to Remember,” as reliable as onions in the tear-provoking department) and a lot of bluster. Its small-scale charm and simplicity wear well for 20 minutes or so, then grow stale. Many of the songs themselves come across as tinny and tuneless. My suspicion is that the show became famous for running a long time not because it’s such an exceptional evening of theater but that it, well, managed to run a long time. In other words, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Director Jeff White’s cast and live three-piece band make an ardent effort, however, to find the magic in the material. White’s casting is excellent. A vibrant Amy Bolton plays Luisia, The Girl. Clad in a yellow jumper and sporting a disposition seemingly washed by the sun, she plays younger than her years with an innocence and charm that never seems cloying.
Cast opposite her as Matt, The Boy, is a highly appealing Tyson Pyles. He doesn’t have to try to play young — as a senior at Clovis East High School, he IS young. But as he and Bolton wind through the story, it’s clear that Pyles — with the look of a leading man and an infectious enthusiasm for the material — already has developed a strong stage presence.
All that brightness from the leading couple, of course, is destined to be diminished once we start churning through the story, which involves their respective fathers trying to manipulate their children into marrying each other. (The dads built the wall because everyone knows children don’t listen to their parents.) When the two fathers (played by Randy Stump and Joe Ozier) set up an elaborate scheme to further encourage the match — they hire actors to stage a “rape” (really an abduction) scene — the tone of the play turns darker.
(About that “Rape Ballet” sequence: It’s my understanding that the current revival of the show in New York uses updated language. I’m not sure if this production followed the old script or the newer one, and I’m usually all for sticking to original source material, but the repeated use of the word “rape” in this show seems not so much offensive — although I do see the potential for that if an audience member has had personal experience — as old and musty.)
“The Fantasticks” is based on an old Roman fable, “Pyramus and Thisbe.” Coincidentally, the night after I watched “The Fantasticks” I saw Fresno State’s “Tales from Ovid,” also based on a Roman tale (which in itself was based on ancient Greek myths). The “Ovid” material was in many ways much darker than “The Fantasticks,” but it also felt more bracingly truthful — as if it weren’t afraid of delving into the highs and lows of human nature. “The Fantasticks,” meanwhile, is skittish and silly about its complexities, coating its deceit and bad will (a father hiring an actor to frighten his daughter?) with a saccharine layer of song and silliness.
Once you get past the slightness of the show, there’s charm to find in the ART production, from White’s minimalist set design and impromptu, pennant-adorned sensibility to Debora Bolen’s costumes. M. Justin Red, as El Gallo, the narrator, is effective. He does a pretty good job of speak-singing through many of his songs, and while his “Try to Remember” might not have the vocal quality that some might expect, it’s a touching rendition. More important, however, Red has nice, warm rapport with the audience with the right hint of devilishness.
Other nice moments come from The Mute, played by a physically expressive Diane Engeln; Greg Ruud as the blustery Henry (The Actor); and a scampering Tony Thammavongsa as Mortimer.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel that when the time comes to sing — and this is a musical, after all — the show loses some of its connection. The vocals and live accompaniment never fill the hall, and the thin melodies tend to wisp away. I’m not sure if this is ultimately the fault of the direction, production concept or the material, but I’m voting for the material. If it weren’t for that one song, I’m pretty sure that no one would ever remember “The Fantasticks.”